Covid isolation has not been a disruptive force. Instead, it has merely accelerated a pre-existing trend towards social isolation. Pre-existing economic circumstances have engendered a withdrawal into individualism and away from community-based socialisation. Meanwhile, the culture industry has adapted itself to aid us in avoiding the discomfiting truth of our true isolation. Covid isolation provided an opportunity to confront this atomisation, but with worsened economic circumstances, and with comfort available in the cultural sphere, we can expect our personal isolation to continue.
Bertrand Russell argued that “modern (technology) has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community.” In the last two decades, almost every aspect of life has become remarkably more efficient. Groceries, taxes and almost every exigency of daily life can be dealt with over the internet. Restricting ourselves to the student’s perspective, online databases, the wildly underrated command-F function, Computer Aided Design software and online lectures have, among countless other tools, combined to trim hours off the learning process. It should follow, then, that this efficiency dividend has furnished us with unprecedented amounts of leisure time. Under Russell’s theory, the modern student should be living a life of epicurean delight. It is clear, however, that this dividend is not being spent socialising. Young people are having less sex than any generation since the sexual revolution and dealing less in drugs and alcohol. When Sydney University, with 55,000 students, cannot sustain Manning Bar, it is clear that something has gone seriously awry.
In the entry into the student lexicon of the terms ‘grind’ and ‘hustle,’ we see a student body without confidence in their ability to waste time away from work and study. With student debt, impossibility high rents, stagnant wages, poorer job prospects and until Covid, little government support, this is an entirely reasonable outlook. In the New York Times, Erin Griffiths writes of ‘hustle culture’ as “obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humour…Spending time on anything that’s non-work relate becomes reason to feel guilty.” This attitude is reflected in the reduction of university education to a utilitarian and transactional experience – I turn up, you give me a degree – with corporatised self-improvement prioritised over intellectual and social growth. Proposed government reforms will only contribute to the abandonment of enjoyment as justification for education. This utilitarian attitude, to education as well as life, has manifested in youth what are usually indicators of a mid-life crisis: solitary fitness fanaticism, religious devotion to podcasts, and stoic philosophy. Even social outings, when they do occur, are couched as opportunities for personal improvement, to refine the product which you are selling to employers. The grim economic outlook faced by our young generation demands that we reduce ourselves to a product for sale to employers, rather than socialising with communitarian spirit. After all, in the meritocratic marketplace of human labour, the best marketed product wins.
Enforced isolation allowed for a re-evaluation of this pessimistic individualism. The adderalinfused stage-scene of self-improvement and ambition fell away, revealing, to many, a bleak and atomised existence without meaningful connection to community. This revelation is deeply disturbing and makes one vulnerable to bouts of depression and anxiety. Therefore, it is best buried deep and ignored. And this was the protective strategy adopted in the long, lonely days of mandatory isolation. Consequently, we found comfort in a culture industry which is perfectly adapted to avoiding confrontation with our self-inflicted isolation.
When an interviewer asked Jean-Luc Godard why there was so much blood in his film Pierrot le Fou, Godard replied: “not blood, red.” As Godard did to blood, social media has done to life, reducing its primitive hostility to a safe and consumable imitation of the real thing. For our purposes, daily vloggers provide a relevant demonstration of this point.
Oscar Wilde wrote that “the only [youtubers] I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad [youtubers]…A really great [youtuber] is the most unpoetical of all creatures, perfectly uninteresting.” Tediousness is thus the principal tenet of the vlogging form. Vloggers depict themselves brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, microwaving leftovers. The inanity goes on interminably, and they make no stylistic choices in their perfectly sanitised depictions of their perfectly boring lives. No conflict intrudes into the vlogs, and intrusive thoughts don’t present themselves when watching classics of the genre such as “Real Time Study with Me for Eight Hours.” In this sense, daily vloggers operate on the same principles as Twitter’s infinite scroll and Netflix’s binge business model: they are essentially numbing, providing a means to pass the time free from the unpleasant intrusion of thought and emotion. Ross Douthat identifies polemic and pornography as genres which “dominate online…because both are ideally suited for a clickhere-then-there medium, in which the important thing is to be titillated, stimulation, get your spasm of pleasure, and move on.” However, in gravitating towards polemic and pornography, it is not titillation and pleasure which is sought, but rather safety. Pornography never dished up heartbreak or humiliation. Online polemic is a safe version of actual debate – the satisfaction of winning over a physical audience can be replaced with push notifications, and one is insulated from humiliation by a phalanx of like-minded followers. Even before Covid necessitated compulsory isolation, faced with loneliness and a realisation of one’s true isolation, we turned away from confrontation with those issues, instead seeking comfort, if not solace, in the numbing cultural forms which have sprung up to attend to our desperate need for insulation from atomisation of our condition. During mandatory isolation, we relied on these forms even more to distract us from the depression which nibbles away at one’s mind when it is not distracted.
Albert Camus wrote that “during every day of life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it.” This moment arrived, without our asking, courtesy of Covid’s intervention. Time is an unpleasant burden to bear, and it delivers some uncomfortable revelations. Thought is given time to intrude, and we can no longer mask it with the habits of hustling, hard work and ambition. However, the realisations that Covid brought to us were not necessarily new and shocking. Indeed, they merely confirmed what we previously suspected but had successfully avoided contemplating – that we have become socially disconnected and atomised within society.
It is for these reasons that, when we are realised from mandatory isolation, a sudden flowering of communitarian spirit should not be expect. Instead, we will embrace the distraction of habit with vigour. We will return to hustling and spurn socialisation and community. The economy will demand it, and our minds will accept it approvingly, freed from time’s heavy burden.